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Revealed: Syrians pay tax to rebuild after war but see little benefit | Global development

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Um Ahmed left everything when she and her four children fled their home south of Damascus at the beginning of a decade-long civil war – toys scattered around all corners of the house, the certificates she earned when she qualified as a pharmacist.

After moving repeatedly, they now live in the Rukn al-Din neighbourhood of the capital in a gloomy rental flat. It is a far cry from their previous home, which was filled with light from dawn until dusk.

“My house was furnished, the pharmacy was full of medicine, and now I have nothing,” lamented Um Ahmed, who asked to be referred to by her nickname due to a fear of reprisals from the government. “It has all become a dream.”

The ruins of her 100sq metre house in Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, cost 25,000 Syrian pounds ($20) to clear of debris. She was out of money before she could even begin to think of rebuilding.

An estimated 6.2 million people have been internally displaced by Syria’s long-running civil war, which has plunged the country into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis. A further 5.6 million have fled and are registered as refugees. In 2018, the United Nations estimated the cost of destruction from the war at some $388bn, nearly 20 times more than Syria’s entire economy was worth last year.

The west has balked at paying for Bashar al-Assad to rebuild Syria. The EU and the US have said they will not support the reconstruction of the country until there is a political transition.

Syria is set to hold presidential elections this Wednesday, a process widely denounced as a sham designed to give the incumbent a veneer of legitimacy.

The election is also supposed to suggest the country is moving forward, despite the fact that war is ongoing and the economy has collapsed: the government cannot afford to subsidise enough bread for its citizens, let alone rebuild its destroyed cities.

With international funds not forthcoming, the Syrian regime has levied its own tax to finance reconstruction. In 2012, it formed a committee to help rebuild the country under the control of the then deputy prime minister and minister of local administration, Omar Ghalawanji, who was put on the EU’s sanctions list the same year.

It was while watching state television in May 2014 that Um Ahmed learned about the Syrian Reconstruction Committee and its promise to help people rebuild their shattered homes. She submitted a claim.

A man walks past a banner depicting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus
A man walks past a banner depicting Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus. Photograph: Yamam Al Shaar/Reuters

The committee has raised an estimated 386bn Syrian pounds ($307m), according to an analysis by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), its Syrian partner SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered. But there is little evidence that the money has been spent helping civilians such as Um Ahmed who, like thousands of others, has heard nothing since applying for compensation.

Available records show that the regime’s reconstruction committee has mostly allocated funds levied from the tax to government ministries and public institutions, making it impossible to track what is spent. Some of the funds that OCCRP did manage to trace, though a small proportion of the whole, went to refurbish military facilities and housing for government forces. Money spent on civilians has often gone to those in pro-government areas.

These findings are consistent with research from the Carnegie Middle East Center, which found Assad’s regime has used “selective reconstruction” to shore up its political and economic power in some areas, while ignoring poorer social classes that the regime views as threatening.

In July 2017, the reconstruction committee granted 175m Syrian pounds for maintenance work in Mazzeh 86, a Damascus neighbourhood and a backbone of support for the regime. Meanwhile almost nothing has been rebuilt where Um Ahmed lived in nearby Daraya, a former base for the opposition Free Syrian Army, even though it was heavily damaged in the war.

Mazhar Sharbaji, a governance officer from the Local Administration Councils Unit, an opposition group that monitors reconstruction efforts, said the committee “allows for the disbursement of money taken from reconstruction funds, explicitly to the military, police and security services [it] has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.

The reconstruction committee did not respond to several requests for comment. A media officer at the ministry of finance directed OCCRP to the ministry of information to obtain permission to submit questions to the committee. The approval is yet to be granted.

In 2013, the tax was set as a 5% levy on direct taxes, such as on the sale of real estate and renewal of car licences, as well as indirect taxes such as VAT and fees for legal cases (income taxes were exempt).

The cash-strapped government doubled it to 10% in 2017 when Zubair Darwish, then director general of Syria’s general commission for taxes and fees, told Syrian state newspaper Tishreen the money would be spent on “supporting restoration and rebuilding what was destroyed, as well as supporting the resettlement of displaced families”.

The then minister of finance, Mamoun Hamdan, explained the government needed to collect more funds to rebuild infrastructure and private properties destroyed in the war.

As the public was led to think the taxes were going to rebuild their homes, a system was set up to allow citizens to apply for compensation to a subcommittee in each Assad-controlled governorate who would in turn send claims to the central reconstruction committee for approval.

But a review of documents by OCCRP, SIRAJ, and Finance Uncovered suggests this has not happened. Data from open sources, parliamentary debates and state media indicates Syria’s government allocated 30bn Syrian pounds to the reconstruction committee in 2013, then 50bn Syrian pounds (worth $40m at today’s exchange rates) every year since – a total of 380bn Syrian pounds, or over $1.4bn. Contributions from the reconstruction levy have increased over the years from the equivalent of $56m in 2016 to $132.4m in 2020.

Spending disclosures, meanwhile, show commitments totalling just 263bn Syrian pounds, leaving a potential underspend of 117bn Syrian pounds (approximately $229m, though the value of the pound has fluctuated wildly during this period). Where the money lies remains a mystery.

The documents suggest less than 10% – 24.2bn Syrian pounds – of the funds allocated to the committee since 2014 has been spent on rebuilding citizens’ homes.

By contrast, 90.3% of the budget has gone to government ministries and public institutions, where it has been impossible to ascertain how the great majority of it has been spent. A small fraction, 1.32bn Syrian pounds, could be pinpointed as having been spent on Syria’s military and security forces.

“Society’s lack of oversight on the work of government entities allows the regime total freedom to make use of public resources, even humanitarian assistance,” said Haid Haid, a senior consulting research fellow at Chatham House in London.

“Therefore, the regime can use this money to maintain itself and ensure its continuity either by using it for police and security matters, or to finance itself.”

The Syrian architect Mazhar Sharbaji, who has researched how war-torn countries such as Lebanon, Germany, Japan and South Korea managed to rise from the ashes of war, said the committee “has clearly given money to military security, internal and political security sectors at the expense of civilian victims”.

It is a contention that is difficult to prove, given the lack of transparency. But Sharbaji used the example of Daraya, his hometown. About 70% of the city is partially demolished, and around half is wrecked beyond repair, he said, with electricity almost non-existent and infrastructure and sewage systems completely destroyed. According to Sharbaji, no housing or infrastructure has been built over the past three years.

Men chat near damaged buildings in Daraya, near Damascus, in 2014
Men chat near damaged buildings in Daraya, near Damascus, in 2014. Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

Analysis of published spending decisions, meanwhile, revealed the reconstruction committee in 2016 granted 50m Syrian pounds to 167 members of the army and the police, 350m Syrian pounds for the restoration and modernisation of military hospitals in the coastal towns of Latakia and Tartus, in traditionally pro-regime areas, and approved paying for the reconstruction of homes belonging to wounded auxiliary forces who fought with the Syrian army.

While those funds are a small part of overall spending, Osama Kadi, head of the Syrian economic taskforce, which monitors reconstruction efforts, suggests the reconstruction tax is being used to bail out governmental finances.

“Lack of transparency and widespread corruption within successive Syrian governments for five decades makes it difficult to determine the fate of the huge monies that the regime has obtained from Syrians in the name of reconstruction,” he said.

“Nearly 10 million Syrians still live outside their homes, all the infrastructure continues to suffer from structural problems, as electricity and water are constantly cut, in addition to other services, and basic goods are not well available.”

Former rebel-held cities where the Syrian regime has regained control, such as Old Homs and the surrounding countryside, Rif-Dimashq, Aleppo, Dara’a, Deir Al-Zour, and many others, where the government has been collecting taxes, meanwhile remain in rubble.

“Syrian citizens and businesses are the victims of a systematic government effort to collect funds through a reconstruction tax, while completely failing to deliver,” said economic journalist Sameer Tawil.

Mohammad Bassiki reports for SIRAJ and Nick Mathiason for Finance Uncovered. Ali Ibrahim (SIRAJ) contributed reporting.

This story was completed with support from Journalismfund.eu’s Money Trail Project.

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Bereaved then evicted by in-laws: Kenya’s widows fight disinheritance | Global development

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Within months of the death of her husband in 2014, Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, from Meru, eastern Kenya, was told that his bank accounts had been frozen, and she had been forced out of her home by her in-laws.

The pregnant 37-year-old was left with no resources to fight back, and returned to her parents’ home. “It was traumatising, and I went into depression for five years,” says Kimathi.

Doreen Kajuju Kimathi
Doreen Kajuju Kimathi, who now volunteers for a widows’ support group. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

Her experience is far from unique. While Kenya protects widows’ inheritance in theory, the patriarchal culture and the influence of colonial legislation that restricted married women’s property rights means the law is often not enforced.

“There is an entire parallel system operating outside succession laws,” says Roseline Njogu, a Kenyan lawyer. “Years of law reform have led us to formal equality, but equality of law doesn’t mean equality of power, and that’s where we get tripped up.”

Human rights groups report that discriminatory practices in marriage limit women’s capacity to own land. According to the Kenya Land Alliance, only 1% of land titles are registered to women, and another 6% are registered jointly with a man.

While children have equal inheritance rights, land is more often passed on to sons, leaving daughters with fewer assets, and making a future wife vulnerable to eviction if her spouse’s family regard the property as theirs.

For young widows such as Kimathi, it can be even harder to hold on to marital property. “You’re considered less entitled to it because you’re expected to remarry,” she says.

But a fightback is under way. Grassroots organisations are emerging all around the country to build community awareness of women’s legal rights. One group, the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization (CTWOO), has offered legal advice and support to nearly 500,000 widows since 2013.

The NGO is trying to address disinheritance at its roots. It works with other groups to increase financial and legal literacy across the country, especially among married couples, encouraging them to discuss finances openly, and to write wills.

Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization.
Dianah Kamande, the founder of the Come Together Widows and Orphans Organization. Photograph: Courtesy of CTWOO

The founder, Dianah Kamande, says that – contrary to popular belief – most dispossessed widows are middle-class, like Kimathi, not poor. The poor usually have less property, and the rich have access to lawyers.

Kamande says death and estate planning are still taboo topics for many married couples, and that some people obscure their wealth. “Men keep lots of secrets about money from their wives, and trust their mothers and siblings more – who in turn disinherit the wife and children,” she says.

Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa logo
Grassroots groups are emerging to build awareness of widows’ rights. Photograph: Courtesy of Widows Empowerment Initiative for Africa

The country’s Unclaimed Financial Assets Authority says it has 50bn Kenyan shillings (£347m) in unclaimed assets, and about 40% is money left by people after they die. Concerned by the rising number of unclaimed assets, research by the authority found roughly 43% of Kenyan respondents said they would not disclose their financial assets to anyone – even people they trusted.

“There’s secrecy around financial investments. For many of the people who find out about the assets left by their spouse, it’s a eureka moment,” says Paul Muya, of the UFAA.

Five years after being widowed, Kimathi’s life was still on hold. She had looked into hiring a lawyer but could not afford it. Without access to the family property, it was difficult for her and her son to get by, and she had to rely on help from her parents and sister.

But through the CTWOO, she found out that she did not need a lawyer to access the courts. She filed a claim, and within a year had gained access to almost all of her dead husband’s property. Last year, Kimathi opened a bar and restaurant in Kitui, 110 miles east of Nairobi.

“It was a huge relief to get the money. Being a widow in Kenya is financially and socially isolating, and knowing what that’s like pushed me to help others in the same situation,” says Kimathi, who now volunteers with a widows’ support group.

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WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech

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Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.

The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.

The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.

The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.

Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.

The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.

The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.

Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.

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Jury calls for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide | Canada

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A community in rural Canada has made a series of transformative recommendations at a coroner’s inquest that – if adopted – could position the country’s most populous province as a leader in preventing femicides, particularly those carried out by an intimate partner.

The jury in Renfrew County, Ontario, just west of Canada’s capital, delivered 86 recommendations this week in a unanimous verdict on the deaths of three local women, who were killed by the same man on a single morning nearly seven years ago.

The boldest was to have the Ontario government “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic” that requires “significant financial investment” and deep systemic change to remedy.

Since the triple homicide on 22 September 2015, 111 women in Ontario have been murdered by their current or former partner, the inquest heard. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.

The jury also recommended official prominence be given to the word “femicide” – to have it be listed as a manner of death by coroners in the province and added to the criminal code of Canada to underscore the misogyny beneath the killings of women and girls because of their gender.

“A lot of the recommendations are groundbreaking,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on intimate partner violence in Ontario who testified at the inquest.

The inquest, which heard from nearly 30 witnesses over three weeks, was meant to examine the systems that broke down in the weeks, months and years leading up to the day Basil Borutski got in a borrowed car, drove to Carol Culleton’s cottage and strangled her with a coaxial cable, then moved on to Anastasia Kuzyk’s house where he shot her to death and then to Nathalie Warmerdam’s farm where he shot her too.

All three women had previously been in an intimate relationship with Borutski. He had been in and out of jail for assaulting Kuzyk and Warmerdam and was on probation at the time of the murders and subject to a weapons ban.

Borutski had been flagged as “high risk” two years before the triple homicide, the inquest heard, and exhibited 30 out of 41 risk factors identified by Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee – including a deep sense of victimhood and the ability to convince new partners he was innocent and unfairly targeted by police in his prior convictions.

Police witnesses told the jury Borutski was very good at “manipulation” and constantly flouted court orders, including never showing up to a mandated partner assault response program.

The jury heard from family members, including Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, who painted a nuanced and empathetic picture of Borutski as a troubled stepfather. It heard from a frontline worker who described Warmerdam and Kuzyk’s constant terror that Borutski would kill them or harm their family.

The inquest jury demanded decision-makers make “significant financial investments” in ending violence, have police all use the same records management system and create clear guidelines for flagging high-risk abusers. It urged the study of disclosure protocols like Clare’s Law, which is used in the United Kingdom and in parts of Canada to allow a concerned person to check if their partner has a police record of intimate partner violence.

Valerie Warmerdam welcomed the verdict, but underscored the need for action on the part of governments who will receive these recommendations in the wake of the inquest. “I want change,” she said. “These recommendations are a good start, if they are actioned. That’s a big if.”

Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA), noted that it was the jury themselves who added the epidemic recommendation among 13 others, including creating a registry of high-risk offenders akin to the sex offenders registry, and exploring electronic monitoring of those charged or found guilty of an IPV-related offence.

“The jury has asked that we tell the truth about intimate partner violence,” Mercer told the media after the verdict. “The jury has asked that we put our money where our mouth is.”

The idea to add femicide to the coroner’s list of manners of death and to the Criminal Code of Canada came from the joint submission. Countries in Latin America have already added this as a criminal offence, she said, and should be looked to as a model for how to do it here.

Accountability was a priority for this jury, Mercer said. The verdict called for the creation of an accountability body akin to the United Kingdom’s domestic abuse commissioner and a specific committee to make sure this verdict does not just languish in decision-makers’ inboxes.

“We are not going to wait forever any more.”

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